The wave of criticism slamming SeaWorld for its treatment of orcas has not receded, despite the company's plans to develop larger enclosures and to funnel millions into funding for marine research.
SeaWorld unveiled the Blue World Project Friday, an initiative that would create a 10 million gallon in its San Diego park for orcas, also known as killer whales. Measuring 1.5 acres, 50 feet deep, and 350 feet in length, the tank will be twice the size of the current tank and include a "fast water current" for whales to swim against. The Project will open in 2018 before moving on to SeaWorld's other locations in Orlando and San Antonio.
SeaWorld CEO and President Jim Atchison said the following in a statement:
Through up-close and personal encounters, the new environment will transform how visitors experience killer whales. Our guests will be able to walk alongside the whales as if they were at the shore, watch them interact at the depths found in the ocean, or a birds-eye view from above.
The project has the approval of San Diego City Council President Todd Gloria, who told reporters he is "grateful to SeaWorld for the investment in these new facilities."
In addition, the company announced it will provide $10 million to support research sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on threats to killer whales, and to create programs to protect ocean health.
Still, will the one-two punch of good news (larger tank! charitable funding!) be enough to stem the flow of bad news surrounding its business and reputation?
Just Wednesday, SeaWorld released a disappointing earnings report, showing their net income and revenue had fallen far below Wall Street expectations with a total of about $40 million less than analysts had expected. Their credit rating, per Standard & Poor's, also plunged to BB- from BB. "The negative outlook reflects our belief that the company faces significant challenges regarding reputational risk and potential improvements in operating performance beyond 2014," S&P said in a statement Thursday.
SeaWorld has commented on the decline, stating in its earnings release that the company "believes attendance in the quarter was impacted by demand pressures related to recent media attention surrounding proposed legislation in the state of California."
"Recent media attention" is putting it lightly.
The Blue World Project announcement arrives about 13 months after the release of the documentary Blackfish, which initiated a ripple effect—a tidal wave, more like—that reached the public's understanding of the theme park's actions behind-the-scenes, and delivered a black eye to the company's reputation. Since the film's premiere, animal rights activists have regularly staged protests, entertainers have canceled appearances, and a nearly 30-year-old corporate partnership with Southwest Airlines has ended.
Blackfish denounced the park's treatment of killer whales, saying their captivity provoked the violent behavior that caused the deaths of veteran trainers like Dawn Brancheau.
PETA has pointed to the curious timing of the Blue World Project announcement as a sign that SeaWorld is only focused on reversing the effects of Blackfish.
"This is a desperate drop-in-the-bucket move to try to turn back the hands of time when people understand the suffering of captive orcas, and it will not save the company," PETA's director of animal law Jared Goodman told the LA Times. "A bigger prison is still a prison."
The San Diego park is already seeing the effects of its latest announcement. On Sunday, about 30 protesters appeared at the San Diego SeaWorld park, chanting, "Hey San Diego, what do you say? Let's kick SeaWorld out of our bay."
"Increasing the tanks by 15 feet of water does not solve the problem of abusing and mistreating orcas that clearly belong in their natural habitat in the ocean," activist Ellen Ericksen told CBS San Diego's Shannon Handy.
Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite was also unimpressed.
"I do appreciate the fact that SeaWorld is willing to admit that something is wrong, for the first time," she told Bloomberg Friday. "But the problem is, instead of changing their business model, they're doubling down."
Besides, she said, the new enclosure will only mean more whales and an expansion of the controversial captive breeding program. "It seems pretty clear that the new pool size is designed to accommodate more captive whales and more forcible breeding," Cowperthwaite said.
Others online, like activists writing for the Cetacean Inspiration blog, have posted their reasons for doubting SeaWorld's projects. In a post titled "4 Reasons Why You Should Disapprove of SeaWorld's 'Blue World Project'" the blogger argues that the space doesn't solve the main problems presented in Blackfish: trainer safety and captive breeding:
SeaWorld supporters, who were trying to convince us that the current enclosures are completely adequate, are now praising the expansion as an increase in animal welfare and environmental stimuli. This begs the question: if it wasn't broke, why fix it? The answer, of course, is that it was broke and it will still be broke after the new tank is built.
SeaWorld has already responded to the snap judgments. Atchison said in a press conference they'd been planning larger enclosures "for quite some time," and that the timing isn't so curious. Instead, announcing the new project on Friday afternoon "really coincides with our need to put a shovel in the ground and get going with it," he said. "We don't expect this type of measure would appease the animal rights extremists, per se, but that's not who we're trying to appease. That's not our market."
The company released a statement on Sunday emphasizing its dedication to killer whales:
For SeaWorld there is no higher priority than the health and welfare of our animals, and any claims to the contrary made by these radicals are simply wrong. The truth is that our killer whales are happy and healthy, and thrive in our care. The announcement of our Blue World Project yesterday is a testament to our never-ending commitment to the physical, mental and social well-being of our animals. The real advocates for animals are our trainers, aviculturists, animal-care staff and veterinarians, not the protesters. While we've estimated only few dozen protesters, we anticipate that nearly 20,000 people will visit SeaWorld today who will enjoy our park and be inspired by our animals. We encourage everyone to get the facts at www.SeaWorld.com/Truth and www.SeaWorldCares.com."
Still, many argue the only tank large enough to accommodate SeaWorld's goals is, well, not a tank at all.
Back in 2013, Cowperthwaite told KPBS San Diego she didn't aim to end SeaWorld's business, but only wanted to open their eyes to other possibilities for providing care.
"They should spearhead the evolution [and] essentially evolve us out of animals for entertainment, in particular killer whales for entertainment, into sea sanctuaries, where you can actually cordon off part of an ocean cove and retire some of the whales there," Cowperthwaite said in the interview, below. "You can still charge ticket fees."
But the documentary, as David Phillips of environmental group Earth Island Institute told KENS 5 News, has done far more than open people's eyes—and may have made it too late for SeaWorld to reverse its reputation.
"I don't think this is going to change the dynamics at SeaWorld," he said. "It's now viewed as a place that's inhumane for orcas and dolphins and the public is on to that."